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Details important when grading your coins

Recently, an exchange at our local coin show turned my thoughts to the details found on coins and how they relate to grading.  A gentleman came up to the table and asked to see a copy of the new edition of the American Numismatic Association Grading Standards for United States Coins that was open near my microscope.

He handed it back to me saying; “Look at this”while pointing to the bottom photo of the 1871 Seated Liberty dime on Page 160.

“How can you grade this; there are no details?”

My table mates and I looked at the photo, then at each other, until someone said, “The photo is a dime in G-4 condition and there are not supposed to be any details on a coin in that grade.”

I don’t think the gentleman understood; and he didn’t stay around for any further discussion.

Remember, the grading books are guides. I’ll bet we could take any of them and find a fuzzy photo, misprint, or a photo that is borderline for the grade that it represents; however, I think the gentleman’s assertion went deeper than that. 

What do you think of when you read the word “details?” Did you know that a coin grading Fine can have “major details” or that the word “details” is used to describe coins in Extremely Fine condition or less in the Red Book?

When I think of a coin with detail, I imagine the intricate die work found on German thalers, the reverse of an uncirculated 8 escudo, or any number of foreign coins from the 19th century. Those coins have minute details.  I cannot think of many U.S. designs with that amount of detail unless we look at our commemorative coinage.

I’ve always considered a “detail” to be something very small. Pull out a Red Book and look at the reverse of a Columbian half dollar. I think of a “detail” as something about the size of a “block” in the rigging of Columbus’ ship the Santa Maria on the half dollar.  Perhaps I have been looking at coins with a microscope for far too long.

By definition, a detail is just an individual part or a particular part of the whole. So a detail does not necessarily need to be small at all. Taken to extreme, I guess the entire ship could be called a detail of the reverse!

Now it makes more sense to me that such characteristics as the large folds on Lincoln’s coat have been referred to as details in the grading guides.

Since the gentleman’s question did cause me to reappraise my thoughts on the meaning of “details,” let’s examine how important details are for graders.

Consider the Lincoln cent. The Red Book outlines the basic coin grades in an abbreviated manner using the design elements of the wheat ears and Lincoln’s jaw. I don’t recall that much has changed in these descriptions since I was a teenager.

The ANA grading guide uses the same basic criteria. With the addition of photographs and expanded descriptions, it allows a collector to see the changes taking place to the design as a coin drops in grade from about uncirculated to good. For grades less than Extra Fine that little word “details” creeps back into the descriptions.

A coin such as the 1871 dime that has a flat rim with mainly the outline of its relief visible has little detail. We only see the major design. With each increase in grade, more of the design becomes visible. Numismatists focus on specific design elements to help define the grade of each coin series.

The word “Liberty” is an important element of Gobrecht’s Seated designs. For Lincoln cents a great deal of weight is placed on the wheat stalks on the coin’s reverse.

While the amount of the design remaining on a coin should get you on base, there are other factors to consider, for circulated coins, especially for the higher grades. A coin’s overall appearance and eye appeal as well as the amount of any remaining original luster becomes important for grades above Very Fine.  This is when we will actually start to see the tiny details of its design pop out. I’m a detail man and coins begin to come alive when I see individual hair strands, flower buds and the veins in leaves on display.   

Incidentally, I’ve found that the ANA publication is adequate for most graders.  Newer guides seem to transpose words and phrases or paraphrase sentences found in the ANA guide in an attempt to appear “new and improved.” Nevertheless, as you become more knowledgeable, you’ll want to have a copy of every grading guide, including one of the forerunners, Photograde. Each guide has some duplication, but the variety of photos will help expand your grading skills.

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